FROSTPROOF, Fla. — Byron and Cynthia Matteson said they don’t plan to give up on their lifelong commitment to citrus, but they agreed they need another cash crop to survive the uncertainties of growing Florida’s signature crop.
So they were planting bamboo on 35 acres of their Frostproof farm.
“I felt a little bit like I was bailing out on citrus,” said Cynthia Matteson, a fourth-generation citrus grower. “We were going to put it (the 35 acres) in citrus, but the situation is so bleak.”
Bleak because the fatal bacterial disease citrus greening, endemic in Florida, has made it difficult to grow that crop at a profit.
“I’m still a citrus man,” said Byron Matteson, adding they will continue raising the crop on 85 acres. “It breaks my heart to see the industry like it is. It breaks my heart to see my citrus trees in this condition.”
Before it dies, a greening-infected citrus tree will produce fewer fruit of smaller size. The disease has led to more than a 70 percent reduction in Florida’s annual citrus crop while nearly tripling the cost of production.
But the outlook for growing bamboo in Florida is as sunny as the outlook for citrus is bleak, said the couple, who own Mattco Enterprises LLC in Lake Wales.
“I’m planting 35 acres for now, but I’ll probably come back and plant a little more,” said Byron Matteson, 56, who has been growing citrus since he was a teenager.
Mattco hopes eventually to grow on 100 acres if its first foray into bamboo proves profitable, he added. The Mattesons expressed confidence it will.
“The thing about bamboo that is hard to resist: It takes five to 10 years to make a profit on a new citrus grove. You can do it with bamboo in three years,” Cynthia Matteson said.
Mattco has partnered with OnlyMoso USA Corp. in Sunrise, which is promoting commercial bamboo growing in the United States.
Moso is a bamboo plant variety, but contrary to the name, the company offers other varieties after discovering they grow much better in Florida’s climate, said spokeswoman Debbi Fultz. One such variety is Asper bamboo, which Mattco is planting.
OnlyMoso is the U.S. subsidiary of an Italian company, Consorzio Bambu Italia, which began promoting commercial bamboo in 2011, said founder and President Fabrizio Pecci, who traveled to Frostproof for the Mattco kickoff. The company has helped create more than 5,000 acres of commercial bamboo in Europe, primarily Italy, Pecci said.
OnlyMoso has helped start more than 300 acres of commercial bamboo in Florida and other Southeastern States since it began in 2014, said Chris Kaiser, director of sales and business.
Consorzio Bambu promotes bamboo as both a food crop, bamboo shoots, and its better known use as a wood product.
Growers can begin picking the shoots by the third year after planting and bamboo wood by the fifth year, Pecci said. The shoots are growing in popularity among U.S. and European consumers because of their health benefits, including antioxidants, potassium and fiber.
“The modern consumer needs good food, healthy food,” Pecci said. “We don’t need herbicides or pesticides.”
A mature bamboo farm will produce 60 metric tons per year of wood and 14 tons of shoots without need of those chemicals, he said.
For the commercial grower, a major attraction of bamboo is its simplicity to grow, Byron Matteson and company officials agreed.
“All it needs is water and fertilizer two times a year,” Matteson said. “The lifespan of these plants is 80 to 100 years. Effectively, this will never need to be replanted.
Matteson estimated the caretaking costs of a mature bamboo farm at $5,000 per acre, mainly fertilizer and labor, he said. Sales of the wood and shoots could bring in $25,000 per acre in the current market.
A planting event at Mattco earlier this month attracted a representative of one of Florida’s largest citrus growers, Lykes Bros. Inc. It has more than 30,000 grove acres, according to Forbes magazine.
Max Tucker, research-and-development farm manager for Lykes, said the company has been looking at bamboo for two years but has not made a decision on investing in the crop. Like most citrus growers, Lykes is looking at alternatives to citrus.
“For us it will be a process of assessing its technical feasibility, financial requirements and market potential,” Tucker said.
Tucker was more encouraged on its market potential after speaking with Pecci, he said.
“We’ll see how another citrus grower does,” Tucker said.
OnlyMoso has a carrot — the financial kind — for growers looking to plant new bamboo farms, said Charles Edwards, a sales representative.
The cost of planting a new bamboo farm runs $18,000 per acre, Edwards said, but OnlyMoso will advance a new grower half that cost interest free for the first four years, repayable in the fifth year when the farm produces sprouts and wood.
Byron Matteson found the offer hard to resist.
“If I hadn’t expected a return (profit), I wouldn’t be putting it in,” he said.
Information from: The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.), http://www.theledger.com